Diving into Monstrous Figures
American Weekly cover illustration by Al Parker. Image from the Modern Graphic History Library.
I had once heard or read somewhere that the horror genre increased in popularity during periods of economic and social turmoil. As often happens in age of constant input from our computers, phones, tvs, watches and so on, I stashed it away in my memory as interesting tidbit and left it at that.
Then, as I started to plan out how I would approach my thesis project, a project that would combine my talents as an image maker and my skills in addressing visual culture from an academic, almost anthropological perspective, that little tidbit made it's way to the forefront. I wanted to find out if it there was illustration evidence that would support the idea that the more social turmoil the higher likelihood of finding monsters looking back from the printed page.
In the most normal of times, researching illustration in periodicals calls for identifying what physical objects might be useful to the research, who might have them, and making appointments with librarians and archivists for viewing before getting your hands on the physical objects and digging through archives. Starting such a project in the middle of a global pandemic made accessing archives nearly impossible. Even without a pandemic, this research was restricted to an academic semester so it was necessary to be open to reassessing goals and schedules, and physical visits would be impossible to rely on.
Illustration as an area of study has been overlooked and ignored by critics only up until the past couple decades. Subsequently, collections and archives dedicated to illustration and comics comprise a small community. Discussing the research goals of this project with Skye Lacerte, curator at Modern Graphic History Library, led me to the other institutional collections (listed below). I used these collections to begin research.
- Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis
- Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at Ohio State University
- Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy at UC Riverside
- Norman Rockwell Museum
The toughest part of finding anything on the internet is knowing what combination of letters and words will reveal the information you're looking for. I maintained a running list of search terms that I would use across the many collections. I had some experience cataloging items and inputting keywords and description according to Library of Congress guidelines at the Modern Graphic History Library. It made it obvious that search terms were only useful if the person cataloging items thought to add those same keywords and it was something to take into consideration.
What's a monstrous figure?
For my thesis project, I created a fictitious riverside getaway, Hunkidoree Resort, in 1960 America that catered to guests that were being portrayed in films and pop culture as monsters to be feared. The bright pastels of the late 1950s/early 1960s were combined with these monstrous figures in the resorts marketing materials.
Images from Hunkidoree Resort by Stephanie Gobby
The figures that were already part of the Hunkidoree world were the basis for the initial pass of key search terms.
Initial search terms
- invisible man
The initial inclination was to avoid using Halloween and Halloween costumes as a search term but I soon found out that my search terms weren't providing many options.The decision had been made to focus on familiar monsters made popular as cult horror classics and thanks to the TV show, Creature Features.*
*Creature Features was a locally broadcast programming that showed different monster movies each week and is credited for reintroducing films like Godzilla, Dracula and Them! to new audiences in the 1960s,70s, and 80s.
Two changes were made to widen the search in order to find more relevant materials. First, the notion of people dressing up as monsters being a valid representation of monstrous figures in illustration was embraced, which meant new search terms needed to be added.
Added search terms
More collections were added as well. Most periodicals maintain their own archives even beyond the end of its physical print run. Fortunately, these archives are usually accessible for nominal subscription fee and go back to the publications inception.
It's impossible to determine if it's because a lack of materials, if cataloging practices didn't fit my needs, or if there was simply a backlog of materials, waiting to be processed for public consumption but there just weren't enough hits when searching as was needed to start seeing trends. Less than 15 images were found that fit the criteria. It was time to venture into the wider internet.